DECIPHER: Decisions on the Risks and Benefits of Geoengineering the Climate (2019-2020)


Geoengineering is the large-scale modification of the Earth’s systems to address climate change. It includes a range of speculative approaches to change the Earth’s radiative balance through solar radiation management or by extraction of greenhouse gases directly from the atmosphere – strategies that may pose both benefits and risks.

Geoengineering has never been tested beyond a limited pilot scale, raising uncertainty about the cost, effectiveness and indirect impacts of these technologies. The approaches have profound risks of negative impacts to the ozone layer, regional precipitation patterns, ecosystems, agriculture and the global climate. Along with ethical and distributional concerns, there are also challenges related to discouraging mitigation, international governance and the risk of international conflict. However, if the cost is low and the effectiveness is high, then geoengineering may be a necessary component of a climate change risk management portfolio that keeps impacts below dangerous levels.

The overall goal of DECIPHER is to improve the holistic understanding of decisions regarding health and environmental risks. In its third year, DECIPHER will conduct a multifaceted analysis of geoengineering as one possibly effective but also risky strategy to address climate change.

Project Description

The primary goal of this Bass Connections project is to support a broadly considered projection of what consequences may occur as a result of geoengineering. Team members will reflect on how to vet decisions to implement or not to implement geoengineering, and to what extent and through what strategies geoengineering should be implemented or regulated, including comparison of alternative governance approaches.

To achieve this, the project team will examine a series of risk-based decision scenarios involving geoengineering technologies, considered from a variety of vantage points; this includes multiple stakeholder groups and disciplinary domains, notably with inclusion of humanist fields alongside technical ones. Each scenario will be evaluated by interdisciplinary subteams of three to four people to assess what is known, what risk-risk or risk-benefit trade-offs are implicitly being made, the role of knowledge and narrative in shaping a broad array of stakeholder viewpoints and ultimately how each decision might be improved. Multiple stakeholder perspectives will be addressed for each case study, including those of the federal government, business, advocacy groups, news media, research and the general public. Subteams will then produce a storytelling project (e.g., a podcast, documentary, zine, video) that outlines the holistic story of a decision scenario of their choice.

Anticipated Outputs

Assessment reports on economic, legal, ethical, political and environmental impacts of geoengineering; policy briefs; opinion pieces; poster and oral presentations; videos


Fall 2019 – Spring 2020

  • Fall 2019: Project introduction and boot camp (6 weeks); form subteams and begin analyses of geoengineering technologies; pro/con debate on geoengineering (stakeholder role-play exercise #1)
  • Spring 2020: Mini project boot camp (3 weeks); exploration of international implications of geoengineering (stakeholder role-play exercise #2); international governance workshop; preparation of policy briefs, poster and oral presentations

Team Outputs to Date

Can Geoengineering Help with Climate Change? (Fortin Foundation Bass Connections Virtual Showcase 2020)

Team website

Could Trees Be the Low-hanging Fruit of Climate Action? (editorial by Elliott Davis and Ari Bechtel)

Trees in the Triangle: Good for Climate Action and Much More (editorial by Andrew Frank and Peter Polonsky Jr.)

Next, Let’s Flatten the Curve of Climate Change (article by Mengfan Li, Kevin Peng, Rohan Rajan, Harshvardhan Sanghi and Megan Wang)

Operation Climate (podcast series by Matthew Brune, Rosanne Lam, Katherine Li, Sergio Macias-Vazquez and Natasha von Seelen)

Mark Borsuk, Tyler Felgenhauer, Billy Pizer, Jonathan Wiener, Collaborative Research Implications of Solar Radiation Management for Strategic Behavior and Climate Governance (grant awarded from National Science Foundation, 2019)

Mark Borsuk, Jonathan Wiener, Billy Pizer, Drew Shindell, Tyler Felgenhauer, Khara Grieger, Varun Mallampalli, Duke Provost Collaboratory Grant (grant awarded from Duke Provost, 2018)

This Team in the News

Marine Cloud Brightening Provides a Glimmer of Hope for Climate Change

Faculty Perspectives: Jonathan Wiener

Faculty Perspectives: Mark Borsuk

See related teams, DECIPHER: Going to Mars (2020-2021) and DECIPHER: Case Studies in Drinking Water Quality (2018-2019).


Image: Save Planet Earth, by Özgür Mülazımoğlu, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Save Planet Earth.

Team Leaders

  • Mark Borsuk, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering
  • Kathleen Burns, Trinity-English-Ph.D. Student
  • Tyler Felgenhauer, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering
  • Christine Ogilvie Hendren, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering
  • Varun Mallampalli, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering-Ph.D. Student
  • Jonathan Wiener, Duke Law

/graduate Team Members

  • Andrew Frank, Juris Doctor
  • Rosanne Lam, Business and Environment
  • Mengfan Li, Civil & Environmental Engg-MS
  • Sam Pollan, Master of Environmental Management

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Aryil Bechtel
  • Matthew Brune
  • Elliott Davis, Environmental Sci/Policy (AB)
  • Qingqi Li, Civil Engineering (BSE)
  • Sergio Macias-Vazquez
  • Kevin Peng, Mechanical Engineering (BSE)
  • Peter Polonsky Jr., Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Rohan Rajan, Mechanical Engineering (BSE), English (AB2)
  • Harshvardhan Sanghi, Mechanical Engineering (BSE), Economics (BS2)
  • Natasha Von Seelen, Electrical & Computer Egr(BSE), Computer Science (BSE2)
  • Megan Wang

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Evan Hepler-Smith, Arts & Sciences-History